Self-Driving Cars: Preparing for the Autonomous Vehicle

Continuing Legal Education Materials

This summary of the Anderson program held on April 24, 2018, was written by Ava Ayers, the director of the Government Law Center.

Wade Beltramo, General Counsel at the New York State Conference of Mayors and Municipal Officials and a member of the Government Law Center's Advisory Board, organized and moderated this discussion of a topic that has received heightened attention after a deadly self-driving vehicle crash in Tempe, Arizona, in March 2018.

Beltramo observed that people watching the debate seem to expect either a "carmageddon" or a transportation utopia—with fewer exploring the possibilities in between. He said he urges the municipalities with whom he works to begin planning now for autonomous vehicles.

Hilary Cain, Director of Technology and Innovation Policy at Toyota, saw two main potential benefits from self-driving cars: safety and access.  The first was safety—currently one million people around the world every year die in vehicular accidents, with 250 a year in New York alone, with 94% of car accidents the result of human error.  The second reason is access to mobility.  A lot of people cannot drive; the technology can provide independence and reduce isolation.

Cain said that when she is asked, "When is this technology coming?", she answers, "Now, soon, and not for a long time."  We already see on the road some lower-level systems, and higher-level systems are coming soon but only in limited geographic areas, e.g., a particular city during the day in nice weather.  But the holy grail of a vehicle that can go anywhere, at any time, in any weather—"those systems are probably decades away."

Cain distinguished "chauffeur" vehicles, where no one is in the driver seat, from "guardian" vehicles, where an advanced artificial intelligence system is in place to take over for the driver when needed. Chauffeur vehicles are much further in the future.

Professor Edward De Barbieri of Albany Law School raised three important questions.  First, how will this technology improve the lives of people with limited access to transportation: how do people get to jobs, healthcare, education, and services.  Second, he also talked about the role of citizens in shaping how the technology is rolled out—the importance of involving the public in discussions. And, third, liability questions: whether regulation of the technology will come from states or the federal government, the extent to which manufacturers will be liable.  Traditionally states play an active role in regulating liability, while safety is regulated at the federal level. 

Cain observed that traditionally, the federal government has regulated the vehicle, while the states have regulated the driver; but when the driver becomes the vehicle, the laws will have to adapt.

Presently, Cain noted, it is illegal to deploy self-driving vehicles in New York because of a law that requires a driver to have one hand on the steering wheel at all times.

Michael Replogle, Deputy Commissioner for Policy at the New York City Department of Transportation, described the City's "Vision Zero": setting a goal of zero road-traffic deaths.  He talked about investing in safer streets through major engineering, enforcement and education initiatives. Automated vehicles could also play a role, but only if properly regulated and managed.

Replogle described some concerns: as partially autonomous vehicles come into use, drivers may be unable to take control quickly when needed. He described the importance of thorough testing.  He also talked about managing the impacts of autonomous vehicles, like "ghost vehicles" driving around empty, clogging the roads while driving out to the suburbs for free parking.  He also talked about the risk of increased sprawl if autonomous vehicles reduce the cost of travel.  To manage this transition, he said, it will be necessary to price and manage road space.  

Finally, he discussed potential labor impacts: displacement as robotic cars displace drivers for both passenger and freight movements.  With 175,000 people in New York City in the taxi and limousine industry, we must prepare those workers for opportunities in the new emerging economy.